Tag Archives: training

Careers Advice – the challenges

Askham Bryan College near York (with other centres in the north of England too) has a very good reputation for specialist land-based further education. The college now has its own Wildlife and Conservation Park – which is of a very high standard, providing students with real experience of the operation and management of a small zoo (and this is a Provisional member of BIAZA).

It was great to meet over 50 of the students this week and provide an insight for them into the world of work with a careers workshop.  The session was designed to give them an introduction to the jobs and career paths available in the zoo and wildlife sector, and with particular emphasis on the process, from job advert to CV and interview.

Whilst I indicated that there are some great opportunities for young people today, and the good work of zoos and wildlife centres is a great career to get into, the workshop provided skills that are transferable to other job situations, and I felt it important to be honest about the issues of current employment practice, HR, competition for jobs, and use of internships (and unpaid work). Students have to be prepared and learn the ways through the systems.

As someone who has interviewed a few hundred people in my career, and been involved in the recruitment process from both sides, I know there are some great people out there seeking employment or the next step on their career path. However, it seems many are finding that there are more barriers to cross and some of the good people get passed over because they don’t get past the selection systems. Good practice is seen across the industry, but at the same time, students and others are faced with different forms of ‘selection’ or ‘discrimination’ (in all but name). Today, as always, ‘zoo jobs’ are popular. So employers have to use some form of ‘selection’ to pick candidates for interview. More often than not, the job description/profile will define qualifications and experience (and skills) appropriate for the role.  These will get used as a ‘filter’ in selecting candidates.

The problem now is that sometimes, there are excellent and suitable people for the job who don’t quite ‘tick the boxes’ and thereby don’t get selected.  My career in zoos started thanks to a zoo education manager seeing that although I had no formal qualifications in biology or education (at the time) but had demonstrated an interest and a passion in my ‘application’. I then undertook my training and formal qualifications once I was in the profession.

Many applicants are rejected on the basis of not having the ‘correct qualification’ (and which college/university rated or not) and not having enough experience. However, they might actually be a better person for the role, its just getting past the ‘gatekeeper’ and demonstrating this at an interview.  Persistence and passion are two characteristics that can help. Volunteering at the desired organisation is another, and worryingly there are now more unpaid internships being used – great opportunities for experience but for many this is a ‘luxury’ as it costs the ‘volunteer/intern’ and good candidates could be excluded due to their own financial or logistical situation.

There is a lot of emphasis upon the ‘candidate’ doing all the right things for their career development – which is of course quite right. At the same time, there are good employers who recognise their role in developing individuals and giving someone a chance. I wish this year’s graduates and college leavers success in their applications and steps on the career ladder, and encourage employers to support the next generation of employees and help them with training and opportunity.   

The importance of networking – in praise of ABWAK

For 160+ keepers, 4-5 March 2017 was a very full weekend of networking, talks, workshops and activity held at Colchester Zoo. The annual ABWAK Symposium was once again a huge success, and I was proud to be Chair of the meeting, and complete my term as Chair of the Association and be honoured with the new role of Vice President.

The weekend featured many different topics and taxa, but was framed around our theme of expanding knowledge and networks. The two keynote talks – David Field, Zoological Director ZSL and new ABWAK President on day 1, and Lesley Dickie, CEO of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (& Jersey Zoo) on day 2, focused upon both the importance of knowledge and of networks – but also the pitfalls of ‘fake news’, having trust, responsibility, ethics and honesty and having ambition, learning from failure, and being brave in career choices and development.

The network of zookeepers (and private keepers, along with those aspiring to be keepers through courses etc) has significantly advanced and grown since ABWAK was founded in 1974, not least with the development of the international network ICZ which held its first meeting in 2003.

I joined ABWAK in March 1987 when small groups of keepers met occasionally including for social activity such as inter-zoo quizzes, & the keeper training course (national extension college) was well established, but the network was small. However, over the years and especially so in the past decade, the association has become praised for its symposium and knowledge sharing, alongside its training role with well received workshops on a diversity of topics.

The ABWAK / keeper network is important and now has over 1000 paying members. It has directly helped many participants in both developing their own knowledge and practice but also in career moves. It is often those ‘casual’ relationships and conversations that lead to opportunities, and knowing who might be willing to volunteer to help on a studbook or have ideas and advice … as well as those that may be possible new employees or employers.

To this end, I’m delighted to be helping ABWAK deliver its first Associate Member workshop on 18th March at Sparsholt College, focusing upon careers and helping those aspiring to become keepers to improve their job selection, application forms and CVs, and interview techniques. Then once they have entered the profession to utilise the network effectively and contribute to the development of their profession into the future.